Periodically, and usually when I’m procrastinating for some reason or another, I Google Dewi Wyn Lewis. I generally do this when I need a little bit of a boost, because one of the people answering to that combination of proper nouns is a person in my personal pantheon of heroes (simply put, he is one of the few people in my life who’s managed to make me feel a little bit less crap about myself).
Given that Dr Lewis has been a person in regular contact with a lot of students it is unsurprising that relatively little comes up on a cursory trawl of the interweb. But today I was bored enough with what I was doing to watch this little YouTube video, which was presumably instigated by the child catchers at University College London.
Seven years after I graduated with an underwhelming third from my Chemistry BSc at UCL, I still rewind the memory tape back to that time – it is, and I suspect it will remain, one of the real sources of regret in my life that I couldn’t distinguish myself any better.
So if I could reach through the WWW to anyone watching this, and contemplating becoming a chemistry student, I would beg them to listen attentively to the advice in this video.
Most importantly: you have to regard mathematics as your friend. Clearly Dr Lewis cannot come out and baldly state it, but if you can’t make friends with maths you can kiss goodbye to your future as a chemist. In my first session of remedial maths (I was among the significant minority without a maths A Level), I made so bold as to inquire of the lecturer afterwards what the meaning of ‘derive’ was. I don’t remember what the answer was (I eventually came to understand the meaning of derivation by a kind of desperate osmosis), but I remember the uncomfortable sense that I had asked a lunatic question – like asking a farmer the meaning of harvest – and the feeling that I had left my weakness dangerously exposed. A few weeks later, during our induction into the awful mysteries of calculus, my fate was sealed: I hazarded a guess in response to a lecturer’s question and fell burning from the sky, never to fly again.
And for God’s sake listen to the man – it’s a degree of hard work. Those afternoons in the lab? You will be cold. And tired. And miserable. And hungry. You will gaze enviously out of the windows at the other students tripping to the bar as the streetlights fizzle on, and you may even wonder whether it’s all worth it. It is worth it, but it may take years for that to become apparent. I now view my contemporaries who have moved on to PhDs and post-doctoral work with a degree of envious pride. I wish I had had it in me to ascend to those heights; I didn’t, but I tagged along with them for a while.
And vertical – boy is it vertical. Vertiginous. Sheer. Sheer hard work. Miss the odd lecture and you can probably catch up (with the aid of an obliging colleague who’s prepared to lend their notes), but miss out on understanding a key concept and you’re stumped. As I typed that, the words ‘Clausius–Clapeyron equation’ dropped into my mind as if from a clear blue sky. I have no idea if they represent a key concept but I know they are something to do with thermodynamics, and that for me was a ladder even the first rung of which was way out of reach. Probably the only thing I remember about thermodynamics (apart from the sensations of fear and crushing inadequacy) is the fact that Ludwig Boltzmann, one of the big hitters of physical chemistry, had an equation relating to entropy carved upon his gravestone. The poor devil hung himself, apparently. To a first-year Phys Chem student sinking into a major depressive episode through the floor of the lecture theatre this didn’t seem like such a bad way to go.
So now I am an alumnus. Not one of the distinguished ones, but an alumnus nonetheless. I survived UCL Chemistry. And I am immeasurably richer for the experience, notwithstanding the student loan that will probably outlive me. I don’t work in a lab and will never author a paper, but I understand the difference between precision and accuracy, I get an uplift bordering on the spiritual when I think about symmetry, and I know how to clean sticky stuff off glassware. I wish things had been different, UCL Chemistry. I really, really do.